The Work-Life Balance

I’ve had a lot on my mind lately.

For most of the last six years my family and I have lived overseas because of my work. In that time an awful lot has changed. I went from newly engaged, to married, to a father. I went from a technican to a manager and a mentor. I went from having next to no qualifications to beginning and excelling at a distance-learning degree. I’m a home owner, a budding vlogger and I brought this website back having lost it.

Such change in such a relatively short amount of time is mind numbing, yet at the same time it feels incredibly natural. Don’t get me wrong; there have been times where my mental health has begun to creak, where I’ve had to let some things go in order to focus on what’s important. But I can honestly say it’s generally been a steady and manageable climb rather than a meteoric ascension.

I’m working away from home this week which affords me the rare ocassion to sit back and contemplate in my hotel room. Last night I joined colleagues and friends for a riverboat ride along the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok following a lively and productive regional conference. It gave me food for thought.

Around 19 years ago I lived in a small town in Northamptonshire, I spent my days bunking off of lessons and my evenings glued to my PC screen or TV. I was failing my AS levels badly and was resigned to continued employment in the local fish & chip shop. If you had told that kid that 20 years later he would be a professional, that he was responsible for the tasking and development of others, that he’d travelled the world and worked in over 40 different countries…. his head would probably explode.

But that’s my reality. In 18 years I’ve worked in 41 countries across 5 continents and I’ve lived in four of them for over a year at a time. I’ve been to warzones, I’ve been to paradise. I’ve seen the best and worst of humanity, and most of in-between. I’ve seen ancient wonders, statues of dictators, the grandest and the most modest of homes.

There are times where it takes a toll. I’ve seen things that I try not to dwell on too much, instead locking them in a box at the back of my mind. But most noticeable is that it’s difficult to maintain friendships with those who aren’t in the same sort of life. Understanding that a friend might just up and leave for months at a time is difficult and I don’t blame others for leaving our friendship by the wayside. It’s been my choice to travel and I have to accept that it comes with other limitations.

But as I stood against the railing of our riverboat last night I pondered; what next? I’m content (more or less) working for my current employer, but opportunities past the end of my current overseas tour are sparse. Will I have to leave? Will I have to take a role I don’t want? Can I work from home or will I face a 3 hour commute to HQ each day? The questions were enough to turn my stomach (or maybe it was the gentle rocking of the boat).

At present I have about 6 months to find the answers to these questions, and my experiences so far lead me to think I’ll find some sort of solution that works. If that skinny little kid with greasy, long hair and questionable personal hygiene can get this far, then it’s not too much of a stretch to think he can find a new place to be.

But another question began to manifest inside my brain; do I even want to continue this lifestyle? After all it’s not all jet setting and river boat riding. Thankfully my days of visiting warzones are over, but generally my weekly hours are way above the UK average, and often I have to work through the night or at weekends to get the job done.

The question of work-life balance is something that most organisations aspire to tackle in the modern era, but it’s undeniable that when the chips are down it often takes a back seat to getting results. While some people can cope very well with this I’m beginning to realise what I’m missing out on.

As a young, single guy it was easy for me to pack a bag and head off to the airport at a moments notice. But as I get older (and more importantly, so does my daughter) it’s harder and harder to justify the time away from home. If I had faith that I could walk away from this life and still provide the same quality of life for my family I’m not sure there would be much hesitation at this point.

But how do we tackle the work-life balance? In modern times it’s next to impossible. The “always on” nature of modern technology mean that for many of us we never actually leave work. In the twenty minutes or so I’ve been writing my phone screen has lit up three times across the room.

Emails. Probably nothing that I need to action right now, but I best check anyway. Two of these need flagging for action tomorrow, but I’ll read them now so that I can have a think before then. The other email just needs a quick response, I’ll send it now and London have got the rest of the day to get their response together.

When exactly are we meant to turn off? One colleague had a genius idea recently. He replaced his standard email signature with a message which read:

I send emails out of hours because it suits my lifestyle.  I DO NOT expect you to reply outside of core hours.

Letting people know that he doesn’t expect a response is a great step toward finding the balance, but he is one colleague out of over a thousand in my organisation, spread throughout the globe and across all time zones.

Each morning I’ll wake to emails sent at the end of the UK working day. There’ll also be a few from further East by the time I get to the office. Managing workload across a global organisation is impossible. We have to consider our colleagues working hours, and often that means squeezing in a few more responses when we should already be halfway home.

I’ve taken to setting a permanent out-of-office detailing my working hours and timezones, but it doesn’t stop the phone calls. I could turn the phone off, but there’s the rare ocassion where there is an actual emergency that needs dealing with right away.

Modern technology is amazing, but it has the potential to forever change our lifestyles from the traditional 9-5 to something altogether more frightening – the “always-on” workforce.

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